Designs on Tampa's Riverwalk

USF urban design students are focusing on a potential jewel in downtown Tampa, the Riverwalk.



By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June 29, 2011) – A day is coming when vacation planners will have to specify which Riverwalk they’re traveling to, Tampa’s or San Antonio’s – that’s how iconic Tampa’s boosters want to see the downtown waterfront become.


The project is well on its way and University of South Florida School of Architecture and Community Design students are adding their ideas to be considered for the next phase of development.


Reshaping one of Tampa’s most valuable assets – the riverfront – is all about burnishing the city’s image and enhancing the quality of life for locals and visitors alike. If the Riverwalk is to be a major feature it has to make itself irresistible and pull people in.  Right now, drivers who pass through the area don’t automatically think about parking and walking around downtown.  Its best features are fragmented – separated by barren stretches.


USF Assistant Professor Shannon Bassett was invited by Riverwalk Development Manager Lee Hoffman to have her Urban Architecture and Landscape summer workshop class come up with some ideas.  A previous class had its design concepts used in Bradenton’s successful waterfront renovation. So this class took on the assignment of creating designs for a section that begins at the North Boulevard Bridge and ends at the Kennedy Blvd. Bridge along the east side of the Hillsborough River.


Bassett challenged the students to approach the project as a palimpsest – that is, a manuscript written over a partly erased older manuscript where the old words can be read beneath the new.  They were encouraged to work with and around existing older buildings like the historic Trolley Barn and to “activate” the areas leading to and from the Riverwalk with other sites for activities. 


It’s been talked about since the mid 1970s – improving the 2.6 mile length of land that follows the twists and turns of the Hillsborough. In the 1980s talk turned to action. A master plan was completed by the internationally-acclaimed urban design firm EDAW. Various elements came together in the first phase. The Tampa Convention Center, 400 Ashley Drive, the Marriott Waterside, Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park and USF Park and MacDill Park, Curtis Hixon Park, the new Tampa Fine Arts Museum and Tampa Children’s Museum all fit together nicely and show major progress. Phase two will begin soon. USF’s students hope to see some of their ideas in the final mix. 


The class, made up of a range of students, professional architects, planners and newly-minted graduate students, split into four teams (see list of teams below). They researched similar projects around the country and the world and then labored over drawings and intricate 3-D models to show what could be done . 


They presented their ideas to the people who are most connected to the project – Hoffman and Friends of the Riverwalk Executive Director Roger Kurz at a special meeting held at The Heights at the Trolley Barn in Tampa. 


The students explained the ideas behind their designs before an audience that included Hoffman and Kurz, as well as Darren Booth, development manager for The Heights waterfront project, Don Cooper from Cooper Johnson Smith Architects and Town Planners and others interested in the riverfront’s future.


All of the plans focused on creating continuous pedestrian walkways and boardwalks linking the existing as well as proposed spots along the river. Bassett calls it “stitching” the disparate and disconnected neighborhoods and no-man’s-lands between Channelside, Curtis Hixon Park, and the Trolley Barn.  


There was consistent praise for Curtis Hixon Park, completed in phase one, and the teams aspired to spread its success throughout the length of the river. They tackled the challenge by creating green “stitches” or fingers that would serve as tree shaded pathways leading to and linking potential areas of interest. Those included a floating yoga deck, children’s fountain, beach and bathing areas, terraced and pocket park spaces, outdoor living rooms, community gardens, water taxi stands, kayak and boat rentals.  All of these would encourage the development of businesses and restaurants to serve as additional attractions – or “flexible commerce nodes” in architectural speak.  Each improvement would serve as a catalyst to generate more interest in the area.


“I liked the programmatic aspects,” Kurz told the students.  “You took the most uninteresting area and made it interesting.”


Perhaps most unique about what the students had to offer was a series of schemes that “softened” the edges of the river for water activities by removing seawalls. The goal was to create floodable landscapes. Such approaches would create improved habitats for marine life and wildlife. They showed drawings of terraced shorelines and how people would interact with them. 


But to use the river, it would have to be clean. Their designs addressed this aspect as well with abundant Florida-friendly landscaping.


Hoffman expressed some concern about long-term maintenance implications but Bassett says, “The soft edges are actually cheaper as they require less maintenance, plus they mitigate flooding and then you can have productive landscapes. Civil engineering is far more costly.  Culverts allow the landscape to clean and filter toxic run-off before it goes into the river.” 


The students would like to see the river serve as an additional “pedestrian lane” where water taxis shuttle people between various points along the Riverwalk. Visitors could dine at one end, stroll around in another section, visit the museums, a proposed outdoor market, or attend an outdoor concert at the other end. 


Hoffman, who revealed that the waterfront is about to be folded into upcoming plans for redeveloping the north end of downtown budgeted at $1.8 million, would like to see it be, “a place where people stay. They drive their car, they park and they stay there all day long.”


Bass River Park in Massachusetts, the Lower Don Lands of Toronto, Venice, San Antonio’s Riverwalk, Chicago’s Lake Michigan projects, South Pointe Park in Miami, the Brooklyn Bridge Riverwalk, and others around the world served as inspiration. 


Hoffman lived in San Antonio for two years and while very impressed with its Riverwalk, he recognizes it can’t be duplicated nor should it be.  “We’re interested in bringing the principles back to create the best waterfront it can be based on those principles to create a space unique to Tampa. We really want to know what the people want,” he said adding that there will be opportunities for the public to share their desires and ideas soon. Bassett is working on the possibility of displaying the students’ models and drawings at public meetings and at local museums. 


If downtown Tampa is to be the heart of the city it needs a mix of commerce, transportation, entertainment and residential living where people want to explore. Hoffman and Booth agreed Tampa’s downtown is small and walkable. In fact, when Booth rides his bicycle through downtown he sees visitors and people attending meetings at the Convention Center walking around all the time, but “Tampa’s residents wouldn’t dream of walking around downtown,” he said. 


That is, until they’re given many good reasons and Bassett’s students hope to see some of their reasons make it from their imaginations to reality.


Team 1 - Ashley Anderson, Sean Smith, Aiah Yassin

Team 2 - Alberto Rodriguez, Rebekkah Brightbill, Giancarlo Santillan

Team 3 - Dan Roark, Zinnia Villamor, Gabriella Salazar

Team 4 - Martha Sherman, Todd Engala


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.